Child Support Guidelines: What Are They?

Learn the basics of child support guidelines.

Child support guidelines are designed to provide children with the basic support needed to feed, clothe, and care for them. It will account for things like one parent paying for the children’s health insurance. Baseline child support doesn’t take into account things like tutoring, sleepaway summer camp, music lessons, or snowboarding trips, but those things are important too. If you and your spouse are trying to calculate support yourselves, don’t leave out those extra expenses. Remember your child is going to keep growing, and you need to anticipate events and expenses like sports uniforms and equipment, a bar or bat mitzvah, braces, SAT and college prep expenses, driving lessons (maybe even a vehicle), graduation gift, and college tuition.

To get a general idea of what a court would order as baseline support, use your state’s child support guidelines. If you and your spouse agree to an amount of support that’s different from the guidelines, a court will usually accept the agreement. You are free, within limits, to make whatever decisions you want—you could even decide that one of you is going to stay home with the kids until they reach a certain age and, to facilitate that, the other parent is going to pay more support than the guidelines would otherwise require. You can also agree to support that’s less than the guideline amount, but you’ll have to spend more time explaining that to the judge, and you’ll have to show that the kids will be adequately cared for without the guideline support amount.

If you and your spouse agree to do something other than guideline support, write it down. Your agreement should briefly state the reasons that the support amount agreed on is outside of the guidelines, and say that you both believe that the amount is fair and is in your kids’ interests. The agreement should also address the issue of extra expenses either by stating what you’ll do about them, or stating that you’ll discuss them at a specified time and try to agree what to do then. Include a provision that if you can’t agree, you’ll go to mediation.

Adapted from Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.

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